Romantics Anonymous- Bristol Old Vic

Originally staged at The Globe in 2017, it’s chocolate-based treat that Emma Rice has been able to bring the show under her Wise Children company umbrella and give it a new life. It’s the kind of show that spreads through recommendation, one person falling in love and telling another…as someone who missed it first time around, I’m grateful I had a chance to be charmed by the chocolatiers.
Based on the film by Jean-Pierre Ameris and Philippe Blasband it is the story of two chocolatiers Angelique and Jean-Rene who struggle with life, and love but find joy in chocolate. Adapted into a musical by Christopher Dimond with music by composer Michael Kooman, and with Rice writing the book as well as directing it translates seamlessly to the stage, as if that was where it always belonged.
The music is beautiful and delicate- suitably French-infused but remaining loyal to musical theatre roots. It is that true book-musical of story-driven music that accents perfectly the core story, while opening up hidden depths of the characters and story. And as these are characters for whom their inner lives are a looming, driving force it’s a rich subject matter, and the music feels like the opening up of the heart and soul of the characters and the piece. Like everything else in the musical too, it is so achingly beautiful you can’t help but smile and often cry tears of joy at its beauty.
The book matches witty direction with Rice injecting a playful tone across both writing and performance. There’s a lot of emotion in the piece, but both Rice’s writing, and the deft direction with an eye for physical comedic moments, keeps it light and heart-warming alongside the more emotional undertones. Rice’s direction also gives it a heart of pure theatricality which answers the well-worn question of ‘why make it into a play/musical’ by showing just how much more can be done with the story on stage. Minimalist staging- by necessity at The Globe translates to brilliant theatrical devices. And for a piece that leans heavily on the inner lives of characters, these moments of theatricality, exaggeration, imagination feel like an expanding of that world- the inside of the mind alongside a shared experience of imagination.
There is little to say about the performances except to remark on their universal brilliance. Musicals always work at their best when they’re an ensemble effort, and this truly is one. Doubling, quick changes and occasionally ridiculous costumes, emerging from and engaging with the audience… they are consistently hard-working and brilliant. Particular stand outs being Harry Hepple’s Ludo with his affable charm and Laura Jane Matthewson making a self-help tape sound long suffering. The two leads (Carly Bawden and Marc Antolin) offer a devastating charm that pulls you in from the start. Bawden has a voice that is, pardon the pun, smooth as chocolate and just as sweet, and listening to her sing the beautiful score feels like a treat in itself. Her Angelique is awkward and sweet with a few sharp edges that make her feel ‘real’ rather than a caricature. Equally Antolin gives Jean-Rene just enough of a hard exterior to match his awkwardness that it feels rewarding when the cracks show and we reveal the rest of him. Awkwardly charming throughout you’re drawn to him and rooting for him, even when he gets it wrong. Together they are a force of adorable nature, that have you on board immediately and willing them on in their utterly charming, yet always relatable journey.
It’s a piece of theatre that gets as close to perfection as any of us can dream to. The marriage of musical excellence and theatrical prowess on display makes for an incredibly satisfying piece of work. It’s rare in musical theatre particularly that all the elements align, but here Rice shows her talent as a director, alongside musical theatre writers who understand both their element of the artform, as well as the art of storytelling. Added to this a cast of universal excellence, and a band of exceptionally talented musicians, Romantics Anonymous is really a rare theatrical treat with a sprinkling of chocolate magic. 
But it’s so much more than that for some of us…
I would imagine most people who appreciate theatre will see this and appreciate some if not all of the above. Appreciate the brilliance of the performers, the lovely staging, brilliant music and enjoy the unavoidably charming story.
But Jean-Rene and Angelique’s story is one that is particular to some of us. ‘Je Suis Emotif’ they say, in their emotif’s anonymous meeting (pause for a shout out to both the musical and staging arrangement nods to Rent there, please and thank you). They are both awkward introverts who struggle with things others find easy, normal even. Not just the big things, a show of hands for anyone who got the phone reference to Jean-Rene never answering it. Double points if the sound of the phone ringing put the fear of God into you too.
Jean-Rene and Angelique are to different degrees introverts, empaths and yes socially awkward (probably socially anxious too, but I’m not their mental health professional). And for ‘normal’ people I’m sure it’s a lovely show about some socially awkward people who (spoiler) it works out ok for in the end. But oh, if you’re one of those things (or likely both) it feels so much more than that.
It feels like things you have always kept hidden spoken out loud…and made beautiful. It feels like you’re seen, you matter… that you’re not alone.
There’s so much- it’s so unusual to watch anything and identify so strongly with both of the leads. And from Angelique longing to be able to just do her job (and knowing she does it well) but not have to feel ‘on show’ or ‘exposed’ by the way the world expects you to. Or Jean-Rene being forced into a job where he has to interact with people every day when he wants to hide (literally in his case) behind closed doors. That’s not to say they’re right to- indeed both of them benefit from being finally forced out of their comfort zones, but it’s the acknowledging of these fears, crucially without mocking them, that matters. It’s not without comedy, we laugh at Jean-Rene and his office door because it’s both an act of brilliant physical comedy, but because it’s true…and because the story and the staging are doing it without a hint of malice.
Equally their awkwardness in romance is adorkable. We laugh because we’ve been there (maybe not changing sweaty shirts in a bathroom…well maybe) we laugh because we see it in ourselves. And that’s why it cuts so deep as well. To see Angelique left alone, to see the hurt and fear Jean-Rene feels, we all feel less alone.
That’s not to say it’s not a hard watch at times. To see a character, go through the pain you do, to understand so, so clearly why sitting alone with a stranger is terrifying, or speaking to a crowd might make you faint…why the damn phone is scary. More so that that, Romantics Anonymous makes them honest about who they are and what they fear. And that cuts like a knife…when Jean-Rene fears the disruption to life a relationship will cause, when Angelique is told this man is the one she has least chance of failure with…anyone who understands them feels it like a stab to the heart. But it’s also weirdly beautiful, that streak of recognition, you aren’t the only one to ever feel this way…and it might just be ok.
On the question of love, It acknowledges love might be more of a risk for someone like us, but that for the right person it’s a risk worth taking. The acknowledgment that rather than pushing to pair with someone the ‘opposite’ who will somehow ‘make up for’ your ‘failings’ feels like an important one. There’s a bit of prevailing nonsense that under the ‘opposites attract’ mantra introverts are best paired with extroverts who will somehow either ‘teach’ us to be ‘better’ or fill in the gaps where we let the team down. Angelique is scared of being ‘pulled down ‘by someone like her but actually learns that maybe it’s better to be around someone who truly understands. And more importantly, these aren’t’ failings to be fixed by the presence of another person, they’re things that will fit with the right person. Crucially both of them grow and change, they learn to confront some of the issues that are holding them back, but they don’t change who they are at heart. Even more crucially they don’t change for the other person. They meet in the middle somewhere, make allowances for the other in their lives, understand the different foibles of the other, but never push the other too far out of their comfort zone, never push them too hard to change, instead rejoice in finding someone who feels like they’re on a level playing field.
For every introverted empath socially awkward nerd Romantics Anonymous feels like seeing your fears, your secrets on stage without being mocked. It’s a sense of seeing who you are and being seen. And offered both a life lesson and some hope. A life lesson that you do have to push- do the things outside your comfort zone, see what you can do but do it by being you.
Romantics Anonymous is on at Bristol Old Vic until 1st Febuary. Tickets here
Note: The performance viewed as the first preview of this new version. 
Ticket was purchased and paid for myself. 
I have a Ko-Fi page here  my blogging/reviewing is self funded/in my spare time, if you\’d like to support (all the money goes back into supporting theatres via ticket buying). 
  

By Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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